Lived Experience Brings Human Rights Message Home at CSW

Maria de Bruyn

Personal stories of coerced sterilization and on the influence of religious tradition on sexual and reproductive health captured the audience at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

At two NGO-organized sessions
during the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York this
week, it was people’s personal experiences and views about human-rights
violations that aroused strongest audience response. Sterilization without
women’s knowledge was highlighted by two speakers during the first
session entitled "Beyond denial and discomfort: securing the rights
and health of women and youth, including those who live with HIV."

Esther
Sheehama, a Namibian member of the International Community of Women
Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW), spoke first, relating how astounded she
was to discover that she had been sterilized when she sought contraceptives
at a public health clinic. When she needed a cesarean section six years
ago, she was asked to sign a form, which she assumed covered measures
needed if complications were to arise. She did not realize that the
form also said she was agreeing to sterilization, a term that she did
not even understand at that time. Sheehama emphasized that all women
living with HIV must have the right to decide for themselves whether
and when they want to have children. She also said that HIV-positive
people must be enabled to make those decisions by having access to condoms
for safer sex and family planning to postpone pregnancy until it is
desired.

Vasili
Daliyanis of Vivo Positivo, a Chilean network of people living with
HIV, spoke on behalf of a young woman whose identity is being kept confidential.
She, too, was asked to sign a paper when she gave birth. Her scheduled
cesarean was pre-empted by early labor during a weekend and she was
attended by staff other than her regular physician. The next morning,
a nurse handed the young women her baby while mentioning that she would
not be having any more children as she had been sterilized the previous
night. Vivo Positivo brought a court case on her behalf, but did not
receive a favorable ruling in a lower or appeals court. The case has
now been brought before the Inter-American Commission with help from
the Center for Reproductive Rights. Daliyanis also emphasized the need
for people living with HIV to be able to make their own decisions about
sexuality and reproduction, without interference or restrictions imposed
by politicians or religious institutions such as the Catholic Church.

During
the discussion, two conservative listeners expressed their opinions,
one woman almost crying as she accused the speakers of practicing discrimination
when they opposed the Catholic Church for not supporting condom use.
A young man said that the speakers had presented one-sided viewpoints
because they did not recommend abstinence. Most audience members nevertheless
commented on the presented violations, some mentioning rights violations
in their own countries.

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Personal
experience and viewpoints further enlivened a discussion on "The influence
of religion on the human rights of women within the EU." A presentation
by Ewa Larsson of Sweden summarized research about women’s rights,
in which 23 of 27 European Union governments responded to a survey.
Twenty-two said that women in their nations are endowed with sexual
and reproductive rights.

Nevertheless,
the researchers found a tendency to "detach the female body" from
questions of rights. In many countries contraceptives are expensive,
only available with prescriptions or to women of certain ages, and certain
groups of women have no knowledge about available family-planning methods.
In 50% of EU countries, women are not free to make autonomous decisions
about abortion. In this sense, Larsson said, "the female body is still
a battlefield."

Audience
members who spoke out represented women of the Islamic, Catholic and
Protestant faiths. An Iranian discussant whose friend who was arrested
for a "clothing infraction" stated that, even though she is Muslim,
she believes that the State and religion must be separate to protect
women’s rights. A young woman from Saudi Arabia advocated for caution
in labeling violations of women’s rights as "religious" because
many such abuses are erroneously said to be supported by the Koran.
She was willing to speak out against honor killings, for example, but
felt that they must be characterized as abuse based on tradition rather
than Islamic practice.

A
young Catholic woman said that she felt advocating for access to contraception
and abortion meant condoning the right to take another person’s life.
A speaker from Kenya, on the other hand, lamented the difficulties her
organization has in advocacy for a reproductive health and rights bill
that is being branded as an "abortion bill." Other speakers related
that they believed in women’s choice while simultaneously remaining
practicing Catholics.

Overall,
the expression of personal stories and viewpoints was quite useful,
highlighting the fact that many differences of opinion about women’s
rights are underpinned by religious beliefs or views about religion’s
place in society. If we are to build a stronger movement to support
women’s rights and address rights violations, such discussions should
continue and expand. A female Episcopal priest summed it up nicely;
some of her important points: "We who are in religion must transcend
religion and use it positively….We must partner with our sisters in
thinking outside the box, as many of our problems are man-made….We
must continue the open discussion and dialogue!"

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

News Politics

Congresswoman Pushes Intersectionality at Democratic National Convention

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) charges that reproductive health-care restrictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

The members of Congress who flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week included a vocal advocate for the intersection of racial and reproductive justice: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Watson Coleman’s longstanding work in these areas “represented the intersection of who I am,” she said during a discussion in Philadelphia sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Cosmopolitan. Reproductive health-care restrictions, she stressed, have a disproportionate effect on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

“These decisions impact these communities even more so [than others],” she told Rewire in an interview. “We don’t have the alternatives that middle-class, suburban, white women have. And we’d rather they have them.”

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Watson Coleman has brought that context to her work in Congress. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and serves on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a GOP-led, $1.2 million investigation that she and her fellow Democrats have called an anti-choice “witch hunt.”

Coleman said she’s largely found support and encouragement among her fellow lawmakers during her first term as a woman of color and outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

“What I’ve gotten from my Republican colleagues who are so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose—I don’t think it has anything to do with my being a woman or an African American, it has to do with the issue,” she said.

House Republicans have increasingly pushed anti-choice policies in advance of the ongoing August recess and November’s presidential election. The House this month passed the Conscience Protection Act, which would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in such care.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) lauded passage of the bill and the House’s thus-far unsuccessful effort to prove that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations—allegations based on widely discredited videos published by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-choice front group that has worked closely with GOP legislators to attack funding for Planned Parenthood.

On the other side of the aisle, Watson Coleman joined 118 other House Democrats to co-sponsor the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (HR 2972). Known as the EACH Woman Act, the legislation would overturn the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every woman has access to insurance coverage of abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal funding for abortion care represents a particularly significant barrier for people with low incomes and people of color.

The Democratic Party platform, for the first time, calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, though the process for undoing a yearly federal appropriations rider remains unclear.

For Watson Coleman, the path forward on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment is clear on at least one point: The next president can’t go it alone.

“The president will have to have a willing Congress,” she said. She called on the electorate to “recognize that this is not a personality contest” and “remove some of those people who have just been obstructionists without having the proper evidence.”

In the meantime, what does a “willing Congress” look like for legislation with anti-choice roadblocks? A majority voting bloc helps, Watson Coleman said. But that’s not everything.

“There are lots of bills that Republicans will vote for if their leadership would simply bring them up,” she said.